Casa Fiesta managers may face charges if they knowingly hired illegal immigrants

NORWALK Dishwashers and cooks weren't the only Casa Fiesta employees arrested last week during a fed
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

NORWALK

Dishwashers and cooks weren't the only Casa Fiesta employees arrested last week during a federal raid. Authorities say they also detained a number of managers.

Greg Palmore, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, confirmed supervisors were among the 58 Casa Fiesta employees arrested July 24.

The names and positions of employees are being withheld.

The arrests were the result of a yearlong investigation into the restaurant chain that culminated in raids with federal search warrants at eight sites. Eleven employees from the Norwalk restaurant and six from Sandusky were arrested in the operation, Palmore said.

In addition to the Mexican restaurants, the home of chain owner Ramon Ornelas was raided. Federal agents declined to comment on what they were looking for at the residence.

Reached by phone at Casa Fiesta in Norwalk, Ornelas said the media coverage has taken a toll on his business, even though all the restaurants re-opened immediately after the raids. He declined to comment further on the case.

Officials say the main draw for foreigners to illegally enter the U.S. is employment.

"The magnet that attracts them here is the ability to find work," Palmore said.

As for the other part of the equation, Palmore said there is no one reason why some employers knowingly choose to hire illegal immigrants. Palmore noted the investigation is ongoing into whether Casa Fiesta management knowingly hired illegal immigrants. He did say if evidence emerges they did, criminal charges could follow.

"This is part of a criminal investigation of a company that is violating U.S. law," Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations in Detroit, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Common motives for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants include wanting to cut down on overhead costs and having access to a limited pool of workers, Palmore said.

From a business perspective, hiring illegal immigrants often makes financial sense, said Vibha Bhalla, assistant professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University.

"You need contextualize this in the larger (issue) of migration, and then focus on the (economic picture)," she said. "Businesses want profit. They can exploit these workers, they don't have to pay any Social Security for them, any overhead costs. They can pay them even less than minimum wage, and we know these people live in clusters, in group homes and can get by with whatever little it is."

The price of following the law adds up, she said. Minimum-wage laws, workers' compensation laws, overtime laws and all the other rules protecting employees in the workplace can chip away at an employer's profit margin.

The main targets of recent ICE operations are employers and supervisors. This is because the responsibility lies with them to verify their employees are legitimate, according to ICE.

Every job taken by an unauthorized immigrant is stolen away from a legal U.S. worker, and employers who hire lawfully are put at an "unfair disadvantage as they try to compete with unscrupulous businesses ... (that gain) a competitive edge by paying illegal alien workers low wages," the agency states.

Michael Fleharty, vice chairman of the America First Party of Ohio, an anti-immigration group with several hundred members in the state, said the social costs involved in illegal immigration are tremendous.

"They are collecting welfare and different government (benefits)," he said. "Why should somebody break into my country and I have to support them?"

Illegal workers also drive down the cost of labor and hurt the economy, and that is why he said he applauds the recent arrests.

But the larger issue is far more complex than economics alone, Bhalla said. Politics also play a major role.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, undocumented workers were targeted primarily for business considerations, and there were fewer arrests. The terrorists attacks led to a renewed emphasis on securing the border, which meant clamping down on illegal immigration on a broader basis.

"The federal government and federal enforcement has become much more pronounced since 2001. That is my sense. I could be wrong," Bhalla said.

The statistics seem to support Bhalla's view.

Ever since immigration enforcement became the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security, which created ICE, the number of arrests has steadily increased.

In 2002, worksite enforcement included just 25 criminal arrests and 485 administrative arrests. Five years later, there were more than 863 criminal arrests and 4,077 administrative arrests.

Breaking the law is not something Joel Arredondo supports. But Arredondo, the president of the Coalition of Hispanic Issues and Progress out of Lorain, said despite what ICE claims, the blame too often falls on the shoulders of just the unauthorized employees.

"Why anybody -- whether they're undocumented or not -- comes to this country is for a better way of life. ... My issue is that it's just the workers who get it. How about the people who employ them?" he said.

It is difficult to blame someone for migrating to the U.S. in search of more rewarding working conditions, Arredondo said. The only way to cut down on this kind of illegal behavior is to remove the incentive of doing so.

Employers have to be punished for providing jobs to undocumented workers, he said. Penalizing just the workers for accepting better jobs than they can find in their homeland hardly seems fair.

The 58 Casa Fiesta workers will appear before an immigration judge soon. Chances are many will be deported, authorities said.